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The Cult of Authenticity

Last weekend I went to a wedding in Napier, a village in the rural Overberg, about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I saw a family of baboons sunbathing on the Akkedisberg mountain pass; went to a church bazaar and bought jam; and saw a shop (alas closed at the time) which sold ‘piesangs, psalmboeke en dinamiet’ (bananas, prayer books, and dynamite).

It was a very good weekend indeed. And made even better by the quantities of excellent food which I ate. I was struck, though, by the numbers of restaurants in Napier which advertised their menus as being particularly ‘authentic’. Napier is experiencing a kind of low-key gentrification at the moment, so this isn’t really all that surprising. But it was amusing how the idea of what is authentic was stretched beyond all recognition.

I had lunch at a place which specialises in ‘authentic tapas’ and was advised to order two items, as tapas are, well, small plates. I doubt that the vat of curried sweet potato soup and mound of salad, which included the best part of a head of butter lettuce and two avocados, I was served bore even the remotest resemblance to the tapas of Barcelona. But they were delicious.

I was wondering why, though, a café in a remote South African village would stake so much on serving authentic tapas. There is, I suppose, a kind of thrill in eating exotic, ‘real’ tapas. Even so, most of its clientele are unlikely to have sampled the real thing or, even, to care about the authenticity of their supper. (I don’t mean this in a patronising way. Travel abroad is expensive.)

This is part of a wider cultural trend, where people who describe themselves as ‘serious’ about food (I’m not entirely sure what that means) claim to be able to distinguish between those dishes which are really authentic – which are absolutely true replicas of the ‘original’ dish  – and those which have been adulterated through adaptation.

For instance, Cape Town’s best Mexican restaurant El Burro advertises itself as ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine, and local reviewers go out of their way to emphasise just how authentic its menu is: here is no inauthentic Tex- or Cal-Mex cooking, but, instead it is the Real Thing. (How many of them have actually visited Mexico is open to debate.)

There is, really, no such thing as ‘authentic’ Mexican – or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, or Indian, or Thai, or Norwegian – cuisine. These, and other countries, have a range of cuisines, which differ from region to region, and which have also changed over time. As Jeffrey Pilcher argues in his recent book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, it is more accurate to refer to a number of Mexican cuisines which exist simultaneously both within and without the borders of the country.

The problem with trying to identify ‘authentic’ cuisine is that it’s rather like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The same dish will vary from area to area – from household to household – in one country. I have seen recipes for ‘authentic’ risotto which assert, with equal vehemence, that it should be so thick that you can stand a spoon in it or, equally, that it should be liquid and flowing. My mother’s recipe for bobotie – a South African delicacy – contains grated apple. My friend Carina’s mother’s recipe has no apple, but, rather, raisins. Which is the authentic version? Both. Neither.

Food changes over time. In the early twentieth century, the medical doctor, poet, Afrikaner nationalist, and Buddhist C. Louis Leipoldt recorded a recipe for bobotie which, in today’s terms, would be understood as a meatloaf: it was not the dish that, today, we think of as being bobotie – a layer of spiced, slightly sweet minced meat underneath a buttermilk and egg custard. Although according to the European Union, authentic Cornish pasties may contain only beef, swede, and potatoes, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Cornish miners in the past had a range of ingredients in their pies – and not only this holy pasty trinity.


There is also the problem of anachronism. Mexico became an independent state in 1810 and its borders changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Should only those dishes which were made within the country’s present boundaries be considered ‘Mexican’? The state of Texas remained part of Mexico until 1836, and significant numbers of Mexicans settled in the United States – particularly in New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Should we consider Texan cuisine to be Mexican? And, surely, it would be churlish somehow to consider the cuisine developed by Mexicans in the United States as somehow being of less value than that prepared by Mexicans in Mexico (whatever we may mean by ‘Mexico’)?

So which version do we accept as being the ‘real’ version of a dish? Which one is ‘authentic’? More often than not, a range of factors not particularly linked to food influence our decisions over what is considered to be properly authentic. There is a connection, for instance, between nationalism and cookery books. During the nineteenth century, middle-class Mexicans living in the United States used food both to maintain links with Mexico, as well as to assert the sophistication of Mexican culture. Encarnación Pinado’s El cocinero español (The Spanish Chef), published in 1898, described a Mexican cuisine made using modern technology, and incorporating dishes from Mexico, European, and the Mexican-American borderlands.

Something similar happened in Italy, as Tim Hayward explains:

‘Authentic’ Italian food has an even odder story. Pellegrino Artusi was a writer with a political desire to unify the regions of Italy into a single country and thought, quite logically, that food might be a way to do it. In La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), 1891, he combined all the regional recipes he could find and in doing so artificially assembled what we regard today as ‘Italian’ food.

In fact, a lot of what we consider to be ‘real’ Italian food today, was created in a dialogue between Italian immigrants in the United States and Italians at home. Even relatively poor immigrants could afford the tomatoes, dried pasta, olive oil, meat, and dairy products which constituted the feast dishes of the homeland. This invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

Authentic cuisines are, then, heavily constructed. There is no direct, unmediated way of accessing the food of the past. Indeed, it is also pretty difficult to replicate the cooking of foreign countries at home. Rachel Laudan notes that if she were to write a cookbook on ‘authentic’ Mexican cooking, she would have to take into account the difficulty of finding many ingredients outside of Mexico:

I’d probably leave out the spinal cord soup, the sopa de medulla so popular in Central Mexico (fear of mad cow disease makes that a no-no) and I’d leave out quelites, the mixed wild greens sold already cooked in the markets (too difficult to get hold of in the States). I’d probably also leave out tripe, sugar milk and fruit confections and aroles, the family of thick gruels that warm Mexicans on cold winter mornings (not at all to my conception of Mexican taste).

Also, she argues that she would be constrained by middle-class Americans’ own ideas around what should constitute Mexican cuisine. The cult of authenticity is informed not only by snobbery (being able to identify and cook the ‘real thing’ is a marker of sophistication), but also by a powerful nostalgia for a pre-industrialised food past where all cooking was done from scratch:

I’d include photos of colourful fruit and vegetables stalls but not my neighbourhood supermarket shelves stocked with Danone yogurt and cornflakes.

I’d ignore my friend’s mother’s recipe for lemon Jell-O with evaporated milk. I’d pass over dishes that used Worcestershire sauce, pita bread and Gouda cheese, as well as recipes for Cornish pasties, hot cakes and biscuits, even though all of these are commonplace in Mexico.

This is a nostalgia produced by anxieties around change and a perceived homogenisation of the world’s diets. It is partly as a result of this concern that old ways of cooking and eating are being ‘lost’ that the EU introduced a protected geographical status framework in 1993, which provides legal protection to certain dishes and products in the EU, preventing them from being copied elsewhere. So only sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called ‘champagne’, and only Prosciuitto Toscano made in Tuscany can be called Prociutto Tascano.

For all that this is an attempt to preserve a food heritage, as the philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point, the EU actually decides what is authentic and what is not:

For instance, ‘traditional stilton was a raw-milk cheese up until the late 80s,’ says Dominic Coyte of Neal’s Yard Dairy. But when the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association got PDO protection in 1996, they stipulated that it be made with pasteurised milk. Hence the irony that the raw-milk stichelton, first produced by traditional methods in 2006, is arguably the most authentic stilton available, but it cannot carry the name.

Similarly, UNESCO’s recognition of Mexican cuisine, the French ‘gourmet meal’, the Mediterranean diet, and the gingerbread craft of Northern Croatia as the ‘intangible patrimony of humanity’ in 2010, fixed these culinary traditions in aspic. Also, the Mexican application focussed on only one regional cuisine, the ‘Michoacán paradigm,’ which, interestingly, happened to feature the home state of the President, Felipe Calderón

This recognition from UNESCO will boost the region’s tourism, and EU appellations have helped many small producers in Europe to continue to work in difficult economic times. The mania for ‘authenticity’ helps, inadvertently, to force our attention to how people cooked and ate in the past – to look at methods, ingredients, and cultivars which we may have forgotten. We shouldn’t try to return to the past, but we can certainly learn from it.

My problem with the cult of authenticity – other than its tedious pedantry – is that it conflates eating ‘authentically’ with some ability to make a meaningful difference in the world. More often that not, peasant food is labelled authentic food. Even the most passing familiarity with what most poor people eat will demonstrate that people’s diets improve as their disposable income increases. Peasant food in Italy before the mid-twentieth century was nutritionally inadequate: it consisted of bread and polenta with onions oil and, occasionally, cheap fish and vegetables.

There is nothing wrong with eating peasant food, but it is deeply problematic to believe that eating ‘real’ peasant food represents a solidarity with the struggles of the poor. In fact, it’s a distraction from the ways in which food and big agricultural companies exploit labourers and put small and peasant farmers out of business.

Food is political. Particularly if it’s ‘authentic.’

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

70 Comments Post a comment
  1. This was absolutely fascinating, thank you. And you can see this ‘authentic’ label in action in so many places, used by governments for PR abroad in specially allotted days for a particular diaspora.

    I’m thinking of ‘Tartan Day’ for the Scots diaspora. It’s funny how the name is constructed around a fabric which only became cool after it was outlawed and then reabsorbed into popular culture (and neutralised politically) in the 19th century. Certain foods like haggis and shortbread became ‘authentic’ around about that time too, though coastal regions of Scotland probably would have had more access to fish than the lamb that goes into haggis.

    April 21, 2013
    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And, yes, the case of Scotland is so interesting, and demonstrates particularly well how a mania for food authenticity often accompanies the political/social/economic marginalisation of the people who produce it.

      April 21, 2013
  2. salsachica #

    Interesting article! Enjoyed reading it immensely.

    April 22, 2013
  3. Love your nailing jelly to the wall analogy and your take on authentic food. Great perspective.

    May 2, 2013
  4. Very interesting post. I think the word AUTHENTIC has been abused, and I’m thinking that you might agree, given your post. I grew up in the states, in a small town in West Virginia where one of my favorite restaurants, Chili Willi’s, claimed to have authentic Mexican. Since my mother grew up in the coal fields of WV (yes, not far from the infamous Hatfields and McCoys if you’ve heard/read about that story) in Amerstadale, WV, a very remote, very small town,

    Anyway, Mom didn’t grow up eating ethnic food, and she didn’t like Tacos or Enchiladas or any of the supposedly Mexican food I fell in love with after a restaurant called Chli Willi’s opened in 1985 in Huntington, WV where I grew up, and I always took them at their word that their food was AUTHENTIC though there was not one Mexican or Latino working there. I had no way to know otherwise.

    The food was very good, but after traveling quite a bit as an adult and watching No Reservations with Anthony Bordain, I realized exactly what you’re talking about, that there is no such thing as AUTHENTIC Mexican or authentic anything when it comes to food. I’ll never forget Mr. Bordain’s reaction to eating boiled Iguana, which he thought was quite bland. At that point, as he talked about Mexican dishes in various parts of Mexico he’d visited – was when I realized that Chili Willi’s and various other restaurants where I’ve consumed allegedly AUTHENTIC Mexican was actually Tex-Mex.

    Therefore, I think maybe a better word would be TRADITIONAL, as you mentioned? For example, I found a great recipe for Paella in an old cookbook of my mother’s, which contained all the winning dishes in the Pillsbury bake-off from sometime in the early 80s, and the woman whose prize-winning paella was featured, stated that her mother was from Spain and that paella was a national dish, which I knew after taking Spanish in college. Therefore, along those lines I think, TRADITIONAL is definitely a better moniker for such items because though, perhaps, people in Northern Spain might have a particular way and/or particular ingredients in regard to paella, in that, it’s essentially a meat and rice dish that might have red peppers or other vegetables also just like tacos always have meat and some type of tortilla regardless of what spices might be involved, but there’s definitely a HUGE difference in the final product from region of Spain to another.

    Besides all that, if you’re not in MEXICO or Brazil or South Africa or wherever your AUTHENTIC food hailed from, and, perhaps, like Chili Willi’s there are no chefs who are from Mexico or wherever and/or maybe not, as you mentioned, have even been to Mexico like the folks who owned Chili Willi’s in my hometown!

    Thanks again!

    May 2, 2013
    • I don’t think we need words like traditional or authentic to describe food. Both presuppose that there’s a right and wrong way of cooking dishes – and I don’t think there is.

      May 3, 2013
      • Maybe that’s why the word authentic can be used. If there is no right or wrong way to cook dishes, then it is authentic food. If the dishes vary throughout the country where they originated, and they vary in restaurants that claim to be authentic, then why are they not authentic?
        So basically the word authentic in terms of cooking really only refers to the fact that food is being prepared. It doesn’t matter in what way that might be.

        May 3, 2013
        • So then why label some dishes ‘authentic’ and others not? Best get rid of the term altogether.

          May 3, 2013
          • I think you are right about the word being overused. I just don’t see the problem if a restaurant serves a certain dish and says its authentic, if that dish is made differently in various parts of the country where it originated. Maybe anything can be said to be authentic if cooked by a person of the same nationality as where the food came from?

            May 3, 2013
            • My point isn’t that it’s overused – it’s entirely redundant. ‘Authenticity’ means that one version of the dish is better/more perfect than another. We know that distinguishing between different versions of a dish on these grounds is impossible (and tedious). So the idea of authenticity is utterly nonsensical.

              May 3, 2013
              • Maybe that’s just like most advertising. Just using words or phrases that will appeal immediately to the customer base.

                May 3, 2013
      • I see your point. I didn’t mean it like that. I only meant there were certain basic ingredients that are usually found in certain dishes, but you’re right. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way either…:)

        May 3, 2013
  5. Reblogged this on red rabbit skills services | skills development consultancy and commented:
    Enjoyed this post thanks!

    May 2, 2013
  6. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the concept of “authentic” isn’t as cut and dry as many would like it to be. My professional background is in museum work and, just as with food, there is a great deal of fervor over the idea of authenticity and art or history.

    I think the discussion of Mexican food in the US is particularly interesting. I live in Los Angeles, where Mexican restaurants are as prolific as valet parking and surfboards. Here, I think it helps to think about authentic Mexican food in terms of what it isn’t. I don’t know what it is, but I know what it isn’t. It isn’t Taco Bell. 🙂

    May 2, 2013
    • Oddly, when Taco Bell opened a branch in Mexico City, selling tacos more akin to those available in Mexico, Mexicans complained that they weren’t ‘authentic’ Taco Bell tacos.

      May 3, 2013
  7. The “Moerse Padstal” just won’t translate there in Napier… Well done with the FP!

    May 2, 2013
  8. Terrific argument against the use of “authentic” in food. My aunt married a man from Mexico City, and moved there with him as a young woman. Her mother-in-law was from Spanish ancestors. Abuelita (as I know her now, the grandmother of my cousins) oversaw the maids who cooked the food. They would eat enchiladas for breakfast not gruel. My aunt describes eating eels, tripe and many other cheap foods that Americans don’t even see in the market. They used methods of cooking that could take all day, because they had staff. Abuelita taught my aunt how to cook traditional Mexican dishes, some descended from Spanish dishes. My aunt’s father-in-law was first-generation Hungarian, and his wife learned to make Hungarian dishes as well, and she also taught these to my aunt. My whole family has eaten this delicious dishes for years, and as a result, we all love Mexican and Hungarian food. I still don’t eat enchiladas for breakfast, though.

    May 2, 2013
    • Thanks! So pleased you like it.

      And, as you demonstrate, food can’t be neatly packaged into what’s ‘real’ and ‘authentic’. It’s a reflection of the messiness – in a good way – of our lives and interactions.

      May 3, 2013
      • People in all countries mingle and intermarry, and food as a result is usually a fusion. My father remembers his mother making a pasty that was his favorite food. She grew up in Lake Lindon, MI, a copper mining town on Lake Michigan. We think she must have learned it from the large population of Cornish miners that settled there. Unfortunately, the recipe died with her. He still talk about it 40 years later wistfully.

        May 3, 2013
        • That’s so interesting. My father grew up eating Cornish pasties made by his parents’ Malawian cook. They’re the best I’ve ever tasted.

          May 3, 2013
  9. life of the hand - life of the mind #

    Authentic food? You can find it easy in your garden. Don’t have a garden? Lordy….

    May 2, 2013
    • Well, some of us live in flats and can’t afford gardens.

      May 3, 2013
  10. Authentic people are the least authentic and I prefer fakes who are trying too hard any day–as long as they realize they’re not trying to be authentic.

    May 2, 2013
  11. Such a refreshing burst of sense! I’m convinced that authenticity is more of an intention than an achievement: “We tried to make it as real as we could.” My image of authentic Mexican food is, regrettably, several different colors of brown glop accompanied by a margarita. I much prefer food that tries to achieve the essence of some authentic culture, whether or not it achieves the exact imitation of it.

    May 2, 2013
    • Thanks – glad you like the post. But I’m not sure that such a thing as ‘authentic culture’ really exists.

      May 3, 2013
  12. interesting.. fascinating article..

    May 3, 2013
  13. The very notion of ‘authenticity’ in an increasingly globalized world should (unfortunately) always be called into question. The gap between culture and economy is closing and multinational capital is penetrating our lives in unprecedented ways, namely by affecting us at the level of unconsciousness and therefore altering our human nature. Nice post!

    May 3, 2013
  14. Reblogged this on New American Gospel! and commented:
    — J.W.

    May 3, 2013
  15. Brad Lee #

    Wonderfully unpacked as usual Sarah! Thanks. Think on this eclectic mix of wonderfully authentic SA food and try to leave something out. Bunny Chow, koeksuster, chakalata, boerewors, Walkie Talkies, Samp ‘n Beans, Melktert……? Imagine being a foreigner trying to define SA food?

    May 3, 2013
    • Thanks so much! Hope you and your sheep are very well too.

      May 3, 2013
  16. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I read your blog like’s grabs my soul and infuses me with the talents of your writing. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Enjoy your newfound fame…you’ve certainly earned it.
    ~Dennis McHale

    May 3, 2013
  17. Reblogged this on one swallow makes a summer and commented:
    A stunning food blog, amazing the work that must have gone into it!

    May 3, 2013
  18. Enjoyed! & Shared!

    May 3, 2013
  19. Reblogged this on Resort & Luxury Real Estate, Co. and commented:
    A colorful & descriptive exotic food “textorial”. nicely written!

    May 3, 2013
  20. whimsytales #

    And here I was thinking the fight for “authenticity” was an American thing. Fantastic article. I don’t particularly have a sophisticated palate–as a matter of fact there aren’t many things I don’t like. For me if the food is fresh and delicious than I could care less if it’s authentic (whatever that means).

    May 3, 2013
    • Thank you! And I agree – I prefer food to be delicious above all, rather than anything else.

      May 3, 2013
  21. This was a great read. The politicization of the authenticity of food is rather hilarious.

    The obsession with authenticity seems to be a broader trend – look at the whole idea of hipsterism. Authentic music rather than that which is commercially tainted, authentic clothing using craftsmanship, and authentic living altogether. The same goes for the anti-immigration debates that have been rising all over the world – what is an authentic American, or German? Thanks for sparking a broader question.

    May 3, 2013
    • Thanks! So glad you enjoyed it.

      Yes – it’s definitely related to the whole hipster movement. I agree.

      May 3, 2013
  22. Interesting post. You touch on the real reason why people use “authentic”: it used to mean something to a subset of knowledgeable people, then became popular, and now is just, well, marketing. “Foodie” used not to have the negative connotations of pretension as well: it just meant someone who appreciated good food. It’s a pity, in a way.
    Hilarious story about the Mexico City Taco Bell tacos not being “authentic”, btw. I wonder how Indians feel about vegetarian Big Macs in Delhi? Or hallal chicken at a KFC in Pakistan? Food is culture, and there are lots of opportunities for misunderstanding (or hilarity?)

    May 3, 2013
    • Thanks! And I agree, it is a pity.

      I’d love to know how people in India feel about Chicken Tikka Masala.

      May 3, 2013
  23. Yes, by claiming constantly “authentic” in a world of globalization, becomes confusing. And yes, to attract more consumers –food, travel experiences, clothing, etc.

    The way how describe the Chinese food I eat tends to be “traditional” –traditional dishes don’t use processed pre-frozen stuff. It also points to style of cooking that does not use a microwave. (Hard to do stir fry from scratch in a microwave.) Does not mean I cook with a wood fire, but using ingredients that would have been used 75 years ago for the same flavour, mouth feel and visual result.

    May 4, 2013
  24. Thought provoking, well-researched and beautifully expressed. Food is indeed political, more and more so perhaps with the concerns being raised of how we continue to feed the planet under the shadow of climate change. I particularly appreciate you questioning the glorification of ‘peasant food’ as authentic, when it is often nutritionally inadequate and those who have to eat it would quickly improve/cary their diet if they had the means.

    May 4, 2013
  25. I’ve seen Texans come to blows over whether chilli should have beans or not and my mother always put spinach in lasagne. I’ll eat it however it comes.

    May 4, 2013
  26. You are writing articles here… professional… this could be a song or a poem or the title of a book… I hope you’ll write someday: “‘piesangs, psalmboeke en dinamiet’ (bananas, prayer books, and dynamite”… Love your style. – Renee

    May 4, 2013
  27. nosharingplease #

    Your post is really refreshing. As I really want to explore on authentic food, this was an eye-opener. I would love to read more about the subject.

    May 5, 2013
  28. Very interesting post. Being in the middle east and exposed to a lot of food from the subcontinent, I often have to ask myself about the authenticity of the plate or bowl or banana leaf in front of me. My favorite Indian restaurant in Doha for example, has two main chefs. One north Indian, one south Indian. In order to be able to offer ‘authentic’ dishes. While indian recipes usually don’t consist of precise measurements but rather individually used amounts of spices and other ingredients, there can not possibly be something like authentic Indian food. I decided to think, as long as a substantial amount of people from the respective country clearly like a food, it has to have some authenticity…

    Thanks for your interesting read.

    May 5, 2013
  29. Skookum #

    I don’t know about ‘Authentic’, or even ‘Traditional’, lacking such qualities myself. What I do know, however, is ‘Delicious’. When describing food, that’s the one that matters. Right up there with ‘Satisfying’, ‘Nourishing’ and ‘Made with Love’. I suspect the use of ‘Authentic’ and ‘Traditional’ are rather obscuring the relative absence of those more important qualities.
    As someone who loves to try new foods, I found this to be a truly enjoyable read – thank you!

    May 5, 2013
  30. Vegetarian In Vegas #

    Loved the way this was written. It has given me a lot to think about. I have no problem saying: “traditional” when it comes to my families traditions. Eg. we traditionally have strawberries for christmas breakfast, but would never say that it is a traditional christmas meal. I sometimes find “traditional” also means…. Over spiced. “Oh, this is your first time having X?Oh well just so you know it was made in the traditional way.” . . .I guess the only traditional way of cooking…. is to walk outside pick it off a bush and eat it… you know like the cavemen traditionally did. 😀

    May 10, 2013
  31. I think the discussion of Mexican food in the US is particularly interesting. I think it helps to think about authentic Mexican food in terms of what it isn’t. I don’t know what it is, but I know what it isn’t.

    May 16, 2013
  32. Anwar Ismail #

    Ag nee man! – there is no authentic Afrikaner food!

    May 31, 2013

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